Flying the Flag for African Women in Science

The number of women entering into education in sub-Saharan Africa has skyrocketed since the 1970s, marking incredible progress for women across the continent. Yet, despite this advancement, the stark reality remains that many countries are simply not equipped, or prepared, to accommodate this growth. Here, we take a look at education for women in Africa, with a focus on some remarkable female scientists who have made it against the odds, and the support networks set up to overcome challenges and encourage women to pursue careers in science and technology in Africa.

Education in Africa: A unique dynamic

The vast continent of Africa is a myriad of diverse cultures and traditions, which bring unique challenges, complex policies and practices – particularly for women. Yet despite the ever-present gender bias, the number of women entering into education in sub-Saharan Africa has significantly increased since the 1970s. In fact, enrollment in higher education has grown faster in sub-Saharan Africa than in any other region with figures recently soaring to more than 4.5 million, that’s around 20 times more than in 1970. It marks incredible progress for both men and women across the continent.

On top of that, several governments have recognized the important role women have to play in their country’s economic future and the importance of encouraging women in education. It is dawning on governments from Ghana to Zimbabwe that by focusing on science, technology and innovation, for example, and by harnessing one of their greatest assets – women – a brighter economic future is possible.

“Because of women’s closeness to family and children, we have a unique approach to science and its application that emphasizes the human dimension of science and technology, and its value in improving the quality of life and the empowerment of humankind,” explains Lydia Makhubu, president of the Third World Organization for Women in Science and vice-chancellor of the University of Swaziland.

Indeed, improving girls’ access to education, and science, has been on the mainstream development agenda for some time, exactly because of the long-term positive effects it has for the individual, family and wider society. As a study by theInternational Center for Research on Women confirms, “women are more likely to control their own destinies and effect change in their own communities when they have higher levels of education”.

African women themselves are also realizing that they are capable of bursting age-old stereotypes.

However, despite this remarkable progress, the reality remains that the education system in Africa is simply overwhelmed by this increase in demand and cannot accommodate students, with preference often given to male students. Women are also faced with significant obstacles preventing access to higher education in countries where national wealth levels are lowest – these countries include Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger and Chad. In short, African women still do not have the same educational opportunities and life chances as their male counterparts. Even though, things are changing, there is still a long way to go.

According to a recent Education For All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report, around 54 percent of primary-school-age girls, for example, have never attended school. Women, it notes, also account for less than 20 percent of students in scientific subjects in tertiary education.

There are many reasons for women’s difficulties with education across Africa. There is still a tendency amongst poor families, for example, to spend available money (needed for school fees or the costs of books and uniforms) on the education of boys, because males are viewed as the future breadwinners. In many African cultures there is also a prevailing expectation that girls will carry out domestic and household work and many cultures pressure girls to marry young, as they are often considered to be an economic burden on families.

When it comes to schools themselves, many establishments are unprepared to accommodate girls and the fact that there is often a lack of separate toilet facilities for girls in many schools can be a deterrent to them attending.

Empowering African Women in Science: Championing Change

As a direct result, a number of organizations have been set up across many of the poorer countries to overcome these hurdles, by providing the support network so desperately needed for African women to prosper. Despite the odds, both education and science are seen as powerful catalysts for change.

The African Women’s Forum on Science and Technology (AWFST), for example, creates a mentoring program, which pairs female scientists with younger, less experienced women, to work on new innovations, while the organization Women in Entrepreneurship, Infrastructure and Sustainable Energy Development (WEISED), concentrates on infrastructure and sustainable energy opportunities for women in those fields of work and/or study.

The Burkina Faso branch of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (Fawe), an organization that works to promote gender equality and education across Africa, focuses more on the importance of developing girls’ ability to reflect on their own reality, to develop self-awareness and to build self-esteem.

Absétou Lamizana, a manager at Fawe in Burkina Faso, explains the importance of self-esteem for the personal and professional development of women, “lack of ambition, of self-confidence and self-esteem are challenges faced by girls, and are linked to a deeply-rooted culture of gender inequality and traditional attitudes towards the role of girls and women. This creates an atmosphere in which they have very little confidence in themselves and underestimate their capacities.”

Another powerful catalyst for change and action has been the South Africa-based organization Leading Women of Africa (LWA). LWA focuses on real solutions and embraces the significant role that female scientists already play in various sectors such as agriculture, health, construction and housing.

The L’Oréal-UNESCO partnership has also been instrumental in encouraging the pursuit of science, as well as spotlighting the achievements of African women scientists, across the continent. In 2010, it launched the L’Oréal-UNESCO Regional Fellowships Program for Women in Science in Sub-Saharan Africa, providing much-needed funding of PHD studies.

Female Trailblazers in Science

Thanks to the creation of such organizations and the work of leading female scientists, such as the formidable Wangari Muta Maathai, women are managing to overcome extraordinary challenges in Africa.

Impressively, Wangari Muta Maathai was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She was also the first female scholar from East and Central Africa to take a doctorate (in biology), and the first female professor ever in her home country of Kenya. In 1977, she started The Green Belt Movement aimed at countering the deforestation that was threatening the means of subsistence of the agricultural population. The campaign encouraged women to plant trees in their local environments and to think ecologically. The Green Belt Movement spread to other African countries, and contributed to the planting of over thirty million trees.

“I placed my faith in the rural women of Kenya from the very beginning, and they have been key to the success of the Green Belt Movement. In the process of education that takes place when someone joins the Green Belt Movement, women have become aware that planting trees or fighting to save forests from being chopped down is part of a larger mission to create a society that respects democracy, decency, adherence to the rule of law, human rights, and the rights of women. 
Women also take on leadership roles, running nurseries, working with foresters, planning and implementing community-based projects for water harvesting and food security. All of these experiences contribute to developing more confidence in themselves and power over the direction of their lives,” said Dr. Maathai.

Dr. Maathai’s courage and life’s work has left a positive legacy for women scientists in Africa, one which perpetuates hope and proves that change is possible through education.

The story of Dr. Segenet Kelemu, the 2014 L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards Laureate for Africa and the Arab States, further illustrates this, and emphasizes the importance of encouraging young girls and women in science. Dr. Kelemu has come a long way from working in the fields of her native Ethiopia and fought hard for her place in society. She defied many odds to become a leading scientist in Africa.

Having grown up in a remote village in Ethiopia, Dr. Segenet had to contend with doing odd jobs assigned to women. She had to weed, pick coffee berries, collect firewood, fetch water. The work was endless and going to school was just an afterthought. Dr Segenet Kelemu recalls that most young girls were married off but she was lucky because her parents could not find a suitor. “I was in the unmarriageable, undesirable category. I was too rebellious and defiant for any parent to want me as their daughter-in-law. I could easily imagine that this was perhaps distressful to my parents at the time, but I knew all along that I was lucky. I now understand that some of my behavior earned me a ticket to freedom,’’ she explains.

Currently the Director General of the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Nairobi, Kenya, Dr. Kelemu was inspired to pursue agricultural science in order to improve conditions for small farmers and especially women in developing countries. Dr. Kelemu’s work is invaluable in that it provides new solutions for ecologically responsible food crop production, especially by local, small-scale farmers. Her discoveries will alleviate livestock feed shortages, improving soil fertility, milk and beef production, and, as a result, improve livelihoods. Her story highlights the importance of women in science, and the crucial part they play in the future of Africa — and the world.

And the progress continues. Recently, Forbes magazine named Dr Patience Mthunzi one of the 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa. A senior scientist in the National Laser Centre at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Dr. Mthunzi is fast gaining international recognition for her work in biophotonics, a new science that involves the microscopic study of cells and molecules using laser light. It can be used in environmental sciences, agriculture and medicine (she’s working on an HIV laser blood test, and using laser in cancer, stem cell and neuro-degenerative disease research). “Nothing is impossible,” says Dr. Mthunzi. “Despite my poor background [growing up in Soweto], being taught in Afrikaans and translating my notes at night, my love of science kept me going. It still does.”

Women in Science: The key to Africa’s Future

Women, technology and science combined are undoubtedly a winning combination for sustained growth and soci-economic development in Africa. Together, they will continue to have a profound and long-term impact on income distribution, economic growth, employment, trade, environment and industrial structure, across the continent. As Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “When women do better, economies do better.” While, there is still a long way to go, there is no denying that great strides are being made to empower women in Africa through science and education.

More than that, women themselves are realizing they too can challenge stereotypes and forge a future through study.

Article by
Image: Loreal fwis